If I were Secretary of State for Education…

Another plug for a small collection of small essays on policy, by leading figures in education.

It’s called ‘If I were Secretary of State for Education’ and you can read it here.

Although seven months old now many of the mini-manifestos are well worth reading, and remain relevant today.

Nice design too by Pearson!


On being inspected…

My name is David and I’m a school inspector.

There, I’ve said it.  I should add that I inspect for ISI (the Independent Schools Inspectorate), not Ofsted; I should also add that I not only enjoy inspecting schools (I really do think it is the best professional development around) but I also value the process of being inspected. Done well and inspections can be mutually beneficial experiences; done badly and the damage done to those involved can be incalculable.

I used to be a governor in a state school which was long overdue a visit from Ofsted.  When I was there I think it is true to say that ‘being Ofsteded’ featured in so many conversations among staff and the Senior Leadership Team that it bordered on an obsession.  And yet I sympathised with the school: the inspection hung over the staff daily, sometimes distorting perspectives, but ensuring that the school was not only ready, and also able to gain outstanding in each of the grade descriptors, was of fundamental importance to everyone attached to the school.  Even as a governor I spent hours in meetings and going on training to ensure that I was ‘Ofsted ready’.

It’s different in the independent sector.

Schools are inspected, on average, every five years (although there are interim inspections between full inspections) and they are given a little under a week’s notice of the inspectors calling. Because of these timescales staff do not spend much of their working week worrying about inspection; instead, they can focus on teaching.  If it is a ‘full, integrated inspection’ it means that every aspect of the school is inspected.  Imagine how important, and how thorough, preparation has to be when you are not only dealing with rules and regulations governing a school, as well as the quality of teaching and learning, but also the wellbeing of hundreds of young people boarding in the school.

We were recently inspected and we had a team of 12 inspectors here for the best part of a week.  They can, in theory, ask for anything at all, ranging from the minutes of a meeting dating back years, to access to any part of the school site. It can be an exhausting experience. But, driving the whole process, is the desire of each inspector to leave the school in a better place, with a stronger understanding of itself, than it had before the inspection.  Throughout the preparation period, and during the inspection itself, there should be a sense of mutual respect and, importantly, reciprocal learning.  Inspectors (many of whom are serving Heads or members of SLT)  should leave the inspected school with new ideas about how to improve their own schools: if they don’t then they will undoubtedly question why they continue to give up so much valuable time.

When the final inspection report is published the school should recognise itself in its pages: each member of staff, each parent and each student, should be able to say: ‘yes, they understood us’.  There may be disagreements, and frank discussions, but acrimony only really begins to colour judgements when the teachers feel the inspectors did not take the time to understand how the school works.  That requires preparation on the part of the school, and time and patience on the part of the inspectors.  We hear a lot, these days, about what the independent sector can learn from the state sector, and much of that is justified.  But in the key area of inspection I believe that the state sector could learn from the independent sector, thus making the whole process more constructive, and less stressful.

Re-reading ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland

I have recently moved house.  What should be a pleasant event is, in reality, truly hideous; in fact if there was a fifth horseman of the apocalypse I think he would be called ‘Moving house’.  However, even the most draining, exhausting experience can throw up some unexpected pleasures.  Old photographs, postcards sent by long-lost friends, items of clothing worn by children when they were babies…such things stop you in your tracks, transporting you, for a moment, into your past and projecting you into your future, just as Eliot wrote about in ‘Burnt Norton’ (‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’)

And then there are the books.  Why do we cling to old books that we will never re-read? What unique power is contained in those yellowing pages that makes us hesitate before putting it back on the shelf?  Other objects do not maintain such a hold over us, but throwing that collection of poems away, or binning that broken-spined novel, seems like a conscious fragmenting of the self.  It weakens us, removing a past from our own identities.  And so we continue to break our backs as we carry hundreds of books from place to place.  Such things used to make some sort of sense before Kindles and the internet, but now?  I’m not so sure.

craft-of-the-classroomEvery so often a book slips from a box that makes you think again about how you teach because, years ago, it made you think for the first time about what it means to be a teacher.  One such book is ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland, first published in 1975 (another one would be ‘The Learning Game’ by Jonathan Smith).  Marland’s book was hugely influential when it came out, changing the lives of many people (teachers and students alike).  When I picked it up again for the first time in perhaps 15 years I did so cautiously: what could it tell me now I don’t know? Do teachers still think of themselves as possessing a craft?

Its subtitle (‘A Survival Guide’) seems to place it in a particular sub-genre wearily familiar to many teachers (let’s call it the ‘us and them’ school which includes titles such as ‘Getting the buggers to behave’ and deploys lots of imagery of attrition, conflict and battle zones).  That approach, or rather that tone, seems rather old fashioned.

But Marland knew what he was writing about (this affectionate obituary from The Guardian shows just how much experience he had in London state schools, and gives a real flavour of this charismatic headteacher).  As I browsed it again my eye was drawn to pages with whole paragraphs underlined, and my (neater) handwriting asking questions of the text and author, somehow expecting answers, and finding them, eventually, in the classroom.

The 70s are now characterised as a brutal time when even the teachers not only dressed like Regan and Carter from ‘The Sweeney’ but acted like them too (and they were the good guys).  Marland’s book is humane and fair, and contains advice that seems, in retrospect, remarkably far-sighted and modern:

Never refer to a pupil’s family in front of other pupils. Never use the ill fame of other brothers and sisters, perhaps because they were at the school, to criticize a pupil.  Never make invidious comparisons with other members of the family.  Never say anything to wound.  Never refer to physical or racial characteristics.

I wish my teachers had read this.

Of course, much is outdated (advice on the right sort of equipment a teacher should have makes alarmingly little mention of mobile devices, unless you count a board rubber , mark book and chalk).  But Marland reminds us that good teachers share the same qualities, regardless of the period, or even the sector, they find themselves in.  One section caught my eye, and again, I could not argue with much of it:

It is important…that in searching for improved motivation we do not overlook the very basic point that in fact almost the best motivation is simply achievement.  On the whole, we want to do the things we can do, and don’t want to do the things we can’t do.  In classroom terms this means that it is not practical to put too much emphasis on motivation, nor to wait until pupils ‘are motivated’ to do something.  Vigorous teaching of the skills will often lead on to motivation.  ‘Being able’ to do is very close to ‘wanting’ to do.  Not being able to do is distressingly off-putting.

But he was no soft liberal who had the soft prejudice of low expectations.  Quite the opposite.  And he placed particular emphasis on the teacher as the leader of the group of pupils being taught: ‘you have to be able to dominate the group’ he writes.  And this section on classroom management goes further, and is written from real experience:

There is nothing so pathetic as the sight of the desperately anxious teacher casting away more and more of his standards as frantic sops to rapid popularity and sacrificing the elements essential to a good long-term relationship to the empty hopes of immediate success.

We have all seen those teachers who want to be friends with their difficult students, allowing what were once clear lines to become blurred.  It never works, and new teachers should know this, as should their mentors. Some schools publish reading lists for teachers new to the school to read (they  invariably include Dweck and Hattie). But they could do worse than include extracts from The Craft of the Classroom.  

The challenges of choice…

So, farewell then General Studies A-level, that much-mocked qualification beloved of too-busy-to-prepare-for-lessons headteachers who wanted to stay in touch with the classroom. It seems that offering this subject actually narrowed choices for our students beyond school because universities rated it (along with anthropology, engineering and performing arts) so badly.  Sometimes less can mean more in education.

Last Summer I had the privilege of editing a small collection of mini-essays by leading educationalists entitled ‘If I were Secretary of State for Education’.  You can read them online here. The responses from the contributors ranged from the idealistic to the pragmatic, from the worthy to the wise, and from the sensible to the impossible.  I will leave you to decide which fall into which category.  Ever since I finished reading these mini-manifestoes I have thought about what works, and what does not work, in schools.  And what struck me was how many perceived difficulties come with such choice.

Working in education today is exciting: I cannot recall a time when there was a comparable number of original thinkers working in every sector.  And, crucially, they are easily connected via social media and email.  Schools doing transformative things in the US (such as those implementing ideas promulgated by, among others, Doug Lemov, Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck) see these ideas being rapidly adapted  successfully by schools around the world.  In the not-too-distant past such ideas would have taken years to cross the Atlantic.

In the UK we have one of the most complex educational landscapes in the world: private and maintained schools are only a part of a fragmented picture that now includes academies, free schools, studio schools, sixth form colleges and, as announced this month, the first new grammar school in fifty years. We live in a Wal-Mart of educational options.  We are spoilt for choice.

And so it might seem odd that enough parents feel that the solution to perceived academic underachievement is to reach back half a century to a model that has been out of favour with Prime Ministers ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair.  Or, perhaps more likely, they probably both felt that re-introducing greater selection through the 11+ was too toxic, and too costly among floating voters, for even their very secure administrations.  David Cameron, in the final four years of his Premiership, clearly feels no such inhibitions.

Such a decision, predictably, provoked a twitter storm of puffed-up indignation and virtue-signalling. This should be no surprise because, than most things in this country, education is something which everyone is an expert on (probably because everyone has experienced it). Furthermore,  it creates a visceral response unlike any other subject I know of:  Daisy Christodolou is right when she writes:

If you want to make yourself enemies in education, probably the best way to do so is to have a decided opinion about grammar schools. They are a litmus test for a whole range of other political and educational beliefs, particularly those to do with equality and elitism.

Personally, I celebrate diversity: a rich rainforest of schools meeting the different needs of a highly developed society is far better than a monochrome plantation that fits one model. In educational terms Britain’s school system differentiates, rather than aiming squarely at the middle.  And if you don’t like what you see then set up a free school and see if you can do better.  But what all schools need if they are to be real engines for social mobility are the resources to attract and retain good teachers.  It doesn’t really matter if those schools are called academies or grammar schools; indeed, such arguments are a distraction or, worse, a deception used to hide system-wide underfunding.

Very often those who scramble for the high moral ground often do so from different degrees of privilege: their local schools might be outstanding or, if they are not, they might be able to ‘game’ the system to ensure their children get into the best schools (as Giles Coren comments on provocatively here) and have access to private tutors to help boost grades. Either way, they are doing so from a relative position of power.  But for those without such power, who have no choice, and who cannot afford to pay for their children to go to a private school, having a good state school nearby is of profound importance.  

I have friends, both real and online, who are opposed to selection and elitism in education (although, strangely, they don’t mind either in areas such as sport, or business).  And when they opposed the new grammar school in Sevenoaks I asked them one simple question: if your child had the choice between going to a failing school in special measures, or an outstanding grammar school, which would you choose?  The choice, suddenly, becomes no choice at all.

Real choice, rather than the false choices offered by indistinguishable school models, or selection by postcode, matters.  Choice is deeply embedded into our everyday life, and it seems perverse to accept it at every opportunity except when it comes to our children’s futures.  The choices we make as adults involved in education should, at every step, put the life chances of our young people at their heart.  Too often, however, we play politics with their lives, choosing our preferences over theirs.

What is the point of parents’ evenings?

Last week I went to my son’s parents evening at the local school.

It followed a traditional pattern: appointments had been made with teachers who were (in an inversion of the usual set up) sitting in one room behind a load of desks. Emotions, ranging from eagerness, exhaustion and trepidation, seemed to flit across their faces as parents approached them. I have been in their shoes more times than I care to remember, waiting for the parents of children I teach ask questions about the progress they are making, wondering if the difficult boy will have equally difficult parents…

The teachers I spoke to were of course charming: they gave a quick appraisal of my son’s progress and told us where (and how) he could improve. As any teacher will tell you, it’s an odd feeling being the other side of the desk, listening intently to every word uttered. I try to play ‘spot the euphemism’, those words and phrases used by teachers to signal certain issues (for example, ‘she should take more responsibility for her own learning’ roughly translates as she’s feckless and lazy). You can find others here. But I was lucky: I got to spend about four minutes with my son’s maths teacher because I was early: she had two Year 7 classes to see which meant, in reality, trying to talk to the parents of about 60 children before the end of the evening. Quite soon a long a restless queue had begun to form in front of her desk as each parent tried to stretch out their allotted time; trying to convey something meaningful under such circumstances is often an impossible and, some would say, futile task.

What are parents’ evenings ‘for’ nowadays? I know they are a statutory requirement for all schools, but is this becoming outdated as new technology, including Skype and email (as well as the ubiquitous mobile phone) are making these events nothing more than opportunities to echo what has already been said several times before? Do parents get better ‘feedback’ from a teacher via an email, or a ‘phone call, composed at a time that is convenient (and often less stressful) for the teacher? In independent schools (where I work) are they part of a marketing strategy?

My parents only saw my teachers once a year, and if they saw them more than that it meant I was in trouble. We had one set of reports per term, all hand written (in tiny boxes) and they were often remarkably frank in their assessment of my ‘progress’ (‘James shows absolutely no interest in this subject and should give it up at the earliest opportunity’ was a fairly typical missive from one particular department).

I don’t want to go back to that. However, surely we should always ask if we should continue with something just because it has always been done in a certain way. I now get emailed about four times a week by my son’s school, ranging from new locker arrangements to a new menu (there are also emails about progress reports). Additionally, I have the email address for each teacher, and I am encouraged to contact them about any concerns I might have; replies are usually swift and constructive. If I wanted to talk to them face-to-face I could arrange a time to meet with them. In other words, the old barriers between school and home have long since dissolved; information from tutors, heads of year, heads of departments and teachers regularly is shared regularly with parents.

If we agree that parents’ evenings are not perfect, how could we change them? Perhaps we should ask some questions. Firstly, how much training do new teachers have in dealing with (sometimes very difficult) parents? On my PGCE I received none, and a quick check with teachers I know found a huge range in experiences ranging from very little, to shadowing a teacher after joining a school, to a full and constructive programme of preparation. Those soft skills – of moving people on swiftly and without causing offence – can be taught. Secondly, how prepared should parents be? Should schools require them to say why they feel a meeting is necessary? Parents could complete a number of questions about their child’s education (perhaps beginning with ‘Have you read our latest report on your son/daughter?) If they answer each one, and they still feel they want to come to meet teachers, they have to give a specific reason for attending. In that way, the teacher will be better prepared for the conversation and it will be more rewarding because of this.

And what about the nature of the evenings themselves? Should parents only be allowed to see a maximum of six teachers, booked online in advance? Should this go further and open up evenings to parents of children who are causing the school most difficulties? Should these evenings be for parents of pupils with specific requirements (such as the very able) so that external speakers, and teachers, can talk to them about their own particular needs? Such meetings would allow for much more focused conversations between staff, parents, and pupils.

Perhaps we also need to change behaviours too: a lot of parents feel, rightly or wrongly, that should they not attend an evening they are ‘bad parents’. But surely what schools should be promoting is an on-going level of support and engagement throughout the year, which reinforces the aspirations the school has for its pupils. Parents don’t need to spend three minutes face-to-face if, for the other 364 days of the year, they have worked with the school in ensuring the progress being made by their child is as informed as it possibly can be. Ideally, parents’ evenings should contain no surprises and when that happens they might start to become redundant because the staff, the students, and the parents are in regular contact, and have a mutual respect and sense of trust in each other’s abilities to work in the interests of the child.

A textbook blog post

I wrote a blog for the TES on textbooks. 

I’ve posted it here as well:

Teacher-made resources have an important role to play, writes one deputy head, but textbooks are essential too

At the recent Education Reform Summit, Richard Culatta, director of educational technology at the US Department of Education announced that textbooks were “out of date the second they get printed”. 

For those of us involved in education, these grand statements, usually coming from tech evangelists such as Culatta, are familiar. But they should not go unchallenged because the end result of such thinking could be costly to schools (in financial terms) and also damaging to the academic progress of our students.

First of all, I must declare some self-interest: I have written textbooks for A-level, IB, GCSE and key stage 3. I begin work on my fifth book (a study guide to An Inspector Calls) next month.

Culatta argued that ‘open resources’, often written collaboratively and capable of being constantly revised in real time, were intrinsically superior to textbooks. For him, schools paying for textbooks “might as well just take the money and throw it away”. For all those teachers who have seen their schools spend endless funds at new technology, only to see it collect dust in store cupboards, such a statement will be met some sense of irony. Meanwhile, the trusty textbooks, well-thumbed, and probably annotated too, are recycled year after year by teachers who like and value them. 

Textbooks have a rigour that teacher-generated resources sometimes lack. To give you an example, it took two years for me to write a textbook for Cambridge University Press on English literature, and it has taken me the best part of a year to complete a study guide on Ian McEwan.  

During this process, I read as much as I could about the specifications, and the authors; furthermore, each word written is questioned at every stage, being edited, sub-edited, proofed, and reviewed. It is an exhausting process, but as I argue here, an inherently healthy one for author and (I hope) the students who use them.  

There are other advantages of textbooks over technology: they don’t crash, they are more durable in different contexts (try risking 30 iPads in a chemistry lab with a bunch of Year 7 students), and, crucially, they are quicker and safer to use (no firewalls, no checking that the students have gone off-task when they go online). It is also a fallacy to say that because they are published on boring old paper they are immediately redundant: I don’t think the main facts of the Second World War need to be changed every ten minutes. Textbooks endure because they remain relevant.

But I dislike orthodoxies. I use online resources from the TES regularly, and they are very good; they have provided a huge range of ideas on numerous occasions. I also work collaboratively with students and teachers using online platforms such as Google Docs. Again, they bring an extra dimension to my planning and teaching. But I reject the ‘solutionism’ that Calutta and others like him think will act as a silver bullet for all school problems. And as soon as they start talking about “personalised learning for all”, I know they don’t work in schools, and have no real experience of teaching subjects with public exams and targets to meet, and all within a limited budget.

Long after the sleek, pricey iPads are stacked up next to the once-indispensable overhead projectors, textbooks will still be being used, and will still be helping students develop a deep and lasting love of their subjects.

Summit up: a reflection on the Education Reform Summit

We are now one year PMG (Post- Michael Gove). And exactly 364 days ago I attended a rather excellent two day event run by the Education Foundation’s, Ty Goddard and Ian Fordham. The first day involved canapés and drinks (and Boris); but on the second day, at the Emmanuel Centre (a kicked can’s distance down the road from the Department for Education), we gathered to listen to MG. He was in a reflective mood, and his speech contained some defiance, as well as hope about the future. Of course, by then he knew his fate, and the tone of his speech reflected this.

If a week is a long time in politics a year is, er, even longer. In the world of education a lot has change, but much remains the same. Most obviously we have a new SoS, a majority Conservative government, and an agenda that is still reformist. But what has most obviously altered is the relationship between the Department and schools. Things are calmer, less confrontational. Which raises the question: do we need Summits, or should it be something, well, quieter, such as a Symposium, or just a Meeting with biscuits? I realise that as one of the people behind an Education Festival, loud banners that proclaim their own significance are not exactly something I’m averse to.

But this Summit did feel necessary. Typically, for such seasoned practitioners as Goddard and Fordham the programme is both broad but focused; the names are familiar but have important and interesting things to say. In place of MG we have NG (Nick Gibb). He talked about grit, character, resilience and textbooks which will help you find the right answer…you know, all the things Tristram Hunt will need over the next five years. He then dropped the C word (‘Coasting’) into the room and, being a teacher with an antennae that can detect 37 gradations of indifference, I felt the air quiver a little. Sean Harford, from Ofsted, must have picked up on it too because he spent much of his time discussing ‘coastingness’, as if it had morphed into an actual thing. I think the audience felt this was going just a little too far.

Richard Culatta jumped on stage with the boundless enthusiasm that comes from someone who is both American and works in technology. We were dazzled with stuff that most of us knew, and agreed with, but couldn’t ‘scale’ (a word I obviously have to use much more if I’m to get ahead in the Brave New World of edutech). I have sat through a lot of presentations on tech and much of what is said is outwardly persuasive but impossible to ‘scale’ (tick) in schools with limited resources. For instance, the idea that ‘individualised learning’, using new technology, to construct bespoke courses for all students…how is that possible, ore even desirable? Haven’t advocates of such a ‘revolution’ not heard of public exams (and lesson plans), not to mention Ofsted?

And then there was the now-obligatory dig at textbooks, claiming that resources written collaboratively online are somehow, intrinsically, superior. Why? Where’s the evidence? By then Nick Gibb had left the building, which was a shame as I’m sure there’d have been some interesting exchanges, so I asked a question instead. His answer was evasive and unsubstantial, but he’d probably see it differently. Out of such presentations no doubt things that work will leak into mainstream education, much as in the same way that the preposterous costumes on the catwalks of Paris eventually find their way into the Romford Marks and Spencer. But it will take time.

Thankfully, Ty Goddard then spoke. This man knows his stuff, reminding us of essential reports that need to be revisited. He also said it with something which is missing too often from educational debate: passion. This was a reasoned, perceptive speech that perfectly captured the current climate of reform in schools. His claims were intelligently aligned with key evidence that has to underpin achievable reform. It was a speech that brought together idealism and pragmatism and it changed the atmosphere in the room from one of patient listening to engagement. And the next speaker, Tristram Hunt, continued this.

Hunt spoke with more freedom, and greater clarity, than I have heard him before. Why is this? Why does Opposition, or being out of office, almost invariably liberate politicians? Is the golden cage of power, or the promise of office, so constraining and dazzling that it renders even very intelligent people such as Hunt timid? His talk was steeped in knowledge, wide in scope, ambitious in intent. He clearly cares very much about teaching and learning, and his anecdotes about the schools he had visited rang true (being both uplifting and depressing at the same time). Hunt still strikes one as a rather donnish figure, perhaps more comfortable in an Oxford quad than a corridor in a state school in Lewisham, and this hint of distance was reiterated when he decided not to take questions, but left soon after his speech. Labour need to engage with its audience again, at events like this, and the best way of doing that is through conversation.

And then there were the panels. Putting panels together is a craft, and much depends on getting the right person to chair. These were very focused but, at 30 minutes each (which works out at about ten acronyms per minute) felt overly compressed. Credit to those who contributed that they kept us interested both pre- and post- lunch.

And then Andreas Schleicher talked about the work he oversees as Director for Education and Skills at the OECD. Schleicher is worth the price of admission alone (admittedly, it was free). This man knows his stuff, and for some teachers that’s unsettling. This was a convincing, informative presentation which conveyed a lot of information in very little time. Such is Andreas’s delivery style it is easy to let some rather damning information to pass by (for example, that a lot of teachers in the UK are, academically, average; obviously he didn’t mean you, dear reader, just that schmuck down the corridor). But if we do have a lot of average teachers who have a less-than-secure knowledge of their subject the consequences for our students, and the country, are clear.

A year on, then, we clearly do need educational reform summits (and Festivals). Yes, the atmosphere has changed over twelve months: there more agreement (although some might say this is resignation). Schleicher was right to say that ‘without data you are just another person with an opinion’, but that doesn’t mean that opinions without data don’t matter. What the Education Reform Summit clearly proved is that such events can shape future debate because they bring a diverse range of people together to listen, and to establish common ground. It felt like another beginning, rather than the end of the Govean revolution. I look forward to continuing the debate next year.